Perhaps naively, a person outside of academia could think that, given the multitude of philosophy schools and the apparent "instability" of the subject as compared e.g. to physics or mathematics, there cannot possibly be genuine "examinations in philosophy". But in fact there are, so my question is, what is their main purpose?

Some reasons I can think of are that they examine:
(a) ability in providing one's own arguments, combining known or perhaps suggesting novel concepts
(b) understanding of the arguments of some important philosophers
(c) detecting logical implication & contradiction
(d) precision or inventiveness in the use of language

So which of the above or other reasons stand out as justifying examinations in philosopy?
Information on the history of the subject could also be interesting,
how examinations have evolved from medieval universities to the current practices.

  • Re history: The degree in philosphy was one of the most ancient with respect to the founding of university institution. "the four traditional faculties of theology, law (Canon Law and Roman law), medicine, and philosophy" May 9, 2020 at 14:43
  • Re purpose: in most cases, if you want a license of some sort (driving, etc.) you must be examined. May 9, 2020 at 14:49

2 Answers 2


As with any kind of examination, this can vary depending on the kind and level. Philosophy courses (undergraduate or graduate) are specific to an era, school, region, or even down to particular works: e.g., "Modern European Social Theory", "20th Century Empiricism", "The Existentialist Movement", "Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit", "Philosophy of Ancient Greece", etc. Examinations in such courses are designed to test mastery of the specific ideas within those specific topic-areas, as well as basic critical thinking skills, like understanding the evolution of ideas within those topic areas or grasping the nuanced differences between different authors within the same basic worldview.

Graduate work in philosophy is usually a deep dive into a particular subfield. Examinations on that level are meant to show that a candidate can craft and defend a philosophical argument that stands up against professional critique. That's no different than what happens to a candidate in physics or mathematics; the metrics of critique may differ, but the process is the same. Philosophy may look 'unstable' to someone with little grounding in the material, but that's only because people without grounding in the material do not see the rational structures that underly and constrain the arguments. Remember, to someone who is naive to physics, the sun appears to rise in the East and set in the West. Once one understands some foundational principles in physics, that obvious perception is precluded, but to (for instance) a Flat-Earther the idea that the sun physically rises and sets is perfectly feasible.

All of modern academia, without exception, is based in the traditional Master/Journeyman relationship of the early university system (before all of our modern disciplines split away from philosophy general). In a Master/Journeyman relationship, the goal is to ensure that the journeyman is competent enough in the material that s'he will not embarrass him/herself, the master, other members of the discipline, or the discipline itself. Examinations thus serve two purposes:

  • To guarantee the journeyman is qualified and prepared to do the work on the level of a master
  • To mark the passage from journeyman status to master status

Examinations don't need to have a purpose beyond that, because a final examination merely marks the beginning of a professional career.

  • Of course, to become a Master an undergraduate degree is not sufficient, you have to take a Master's degree. If you want to go on and teach (Latin "doceo", I teach), then you need a Doctorate. May 9, 2020 at 16:32
  • @GuyInchbald: Yes. knowledge builds on foundations, and insight builds on knowledge. May 9, 2020 at 17:31
  • In the point you make about being grounded in philosophy & in "the rational structures that underly and constrain the arguments", is some kind of objectivity implied here, and if yes, of what kind? I think that we exist in a world already very organized, in many layers, perhaps infinitely many, so that nothing can serve as stable ground on which to rationally build something, except the numbers 1,2,3,... leading to mathematics. Other ways are not based on this kind of rationality; I wouldn't call them irrational but rather based on the subjectivity of experience, faith or imagination.
    – exp8j
    May 9, 2020 at 17:45
  • And this movement, the ground of philosophy always receding when we try to touch it... That's exactly the joy of the subject, that seemingly neverending backward movement towards the sources, in marked contrast to the forward movement of the sciences.
    – exp8j
    May 9, 2020 at 17:52
  • @exp8j: Errr... Define 'objectivity'. The only truly objective phenomenon in the world is the experience of subjectivity, that precedes and grounds every other experience: a kind of neo-Cartesian syzygy in which the experience of 'thought' identifies the existence of the 'thinker'. At any rate, philosophy advances just like any other field of study, but like any other field, advancement implies a greater depth and subtlety of understanding. And philosophy proper deals with issues basic to human life, which makes it extremely contentious. May 9, 2020 at 18:24

I would add, demonstrating knowledge of important topics or fields. Knowing about specific thought experiments and the way they've been explored and developed, helps focus on dilemmas and contradictions, and in communicating philosophical work.

Using established theories to address novel questions, is a big part of philosophy exams. Science constantly presents new ethical challenges, thinking through issues around say ethically responsible euthanasia, or self-driving cars, or issues around digital privacy and rights, or bioethics like germ-line genetic engineering, are some of the most important modern applications of philosophy. It's not enough to quote what others think, a good philosopher should be able to demonstrate thinking through issues, and make a compelling case why we should adopt particular policies or laws.

Montaigne is the most responsible for our modern idea of what an essay is, calling them 'attempts' to address commonplace topics, and give readers a grip of them.

In many ways the same techniques are involved in essays as in debates, arguably the oldest mode of philosophy. Framing the question, martialling previous views, and drawing out a conclusion or response for the particular case. Public debates remain one of the most popular kinds of philosophical work, and thinkers can serve their community by thinking through issues and seeing how compelling contrasting arguments are to a live audience, in the moment. Public intellectuals can help elevate debate, clarify issues, and move culture forward. Writing exam essays well is good training for this.

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